John's Journal
A New Season, A New Team For Elk River Football8/14/2017
On Day One of practice for the 2017 high school football season, I chatted with four seniors from Elk River, the team that came out of nowhere last year, went unbeaten and claimed the Class 5A state championship, the first in the team’s 125-year history.

The first question I posed to Ronnie Audette, Mitch Stroh, Sherrod Kpahn and Reese Norby was very straightforward: Describe last season in one word.

Their answers: Incredible. Amazing. Surreal. Fantastic.

After finishing with a 5-5 record in 2015, last year’s Elks went 13-0, held seven opponents to seven points or less, won by an average score of 45-12 and defeated Spring Lake Park 42-14 in the Prep Bowl. Nine of their 13 games used running time.

“It was lightning in a bottle, it was nuts,” said Elks activities director Mike Cunningham, whose school’s girls basketball team won the Class 4A state title a few months later.

Nobody predicted the Elks’ 2016 football dominance, but the players knew they had a chance to be successful. Elk River sophomore teams were unbeaten in 2014 and 2015 (and did the same last year), so there was reason for optimism.

“We knew we had a lot of talent,” said Kpahn, a running back who carried the ball three times for 56 yards in the Prep Bowl, including a 50-yard touchdown. “We knew we had to stay disciplined and determined if we wanted to achieve the goal that we had.”

The eye-opener last season came in Week 4. Their opponent was St. Michael-Albertville, the 2015 5A state champ. Both teams came in with 3-0 records and the Elks came away with a resounding 43-6 victory. Elk River beat the Knights again in the Section 6 championship game, this time by a 56-0 score.

“The expectations were somewhat muted until we played them in Week 4,” said Elks coach Steve Hamilton. “After that, the coaches and players kept believing.

“It was the least stressful year I’ve ever had coaching. We were behind one time last year. We scored on our first drive, then Alexandria scored and went for two, so we were behind 8-7 (in the state quarterfinals). To be behind once in an entire year is pretty unheard of.”

This is a new year, of course, and the Elks have the proverbial target on their backs. They fully embrace that role.

“It makes you play harder,” said Kpahn. “Knowing that everyone is the state is gunning for you and wants to be in your position makes you practice harder. We play like No. 1 but we pratice like No. 2 at all times.”

Hamilton, a Michigan native who coached there and in Georgia, was hired as Elk River’s coach in 2011. With family ties in Minnesota, the job was easy to accept. And he steadily built the program with the help of his coaching staff and talented, committed athletes.

“Last year we had the best leadership I’ve ever been around, with a couple back-to-back classes that were really talented,” he said. “And the best thing about that group was 15 or 16 of those seniors had a 3.5 or above GPA. They were all great students.”

“The seniors really stepped up and led the team last year,” said Audette, a lineman.

Those are big shoes to fill, and the returning Elks are ready for that challenge.

“I think the biggest thing to replace is the relationships we had, the blend we had,” said quarterback/safety Mitch Stroh. “You couldn’t tell a junior from a senior last year. The relationship we need to create with the juniors this year is something we need to mirror.”

Guard/linebacker Reese Norby added, “Last year our team chemistry was really good. That’s something we need to repeat here if we want to do what we did last year.”

Chemistry and teamwork, of course, can be major factors in athletic success on any level. And that’s part of the formula for all sports at Elk River.

Cunningham said, “The biggest thing always is, ‘Are we doing the right thing for kids?’ In a coaches meeting I said, ‘What we expect out of all our coaches is our kids are going to leave our program better than when they came in.’ Sometimes you get championships and sometimes you don’t. But as long as they’re doing that, you’re doing the right thing.”

The Elks will open the season at home vs. Moorhead on Aug. 31. The expectations will be on a much different level than in past years.

“I think people are going to think because we had nine seniors on offense last year that maybe we won’t be real good,” Hamilton said. “Everybody got to play a lot last year. We have some youngsters, with 40 juniors this year and close to 70 players. Last year I think we had 72.

“I really like our group this year. In some ways we might be more talented than last year.”

--To see a photo gallery from Elk River, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Bob McDonald Court: Honoring The Chisholm Legend8/12/2017
CHISHOLM – Bob McDonald was standing in the locker room that his Chisholm Bluestreaks boys basketball teams called home for 53 seasons. On this Friday afternoon, it was the waiting room where McDonald and family members gathered before a ceremony to name the basketball court inside Roels Gymnasium after the coach.

Now 84 years old and three years past retirement, McDonald is as witty as ever. He said to me, “I hope they’ve done renovations in the gym after all the paint I peeled off the walls with my shouting.”

Then he smiled the wonderful Bob McDonald smile that is known to basketball coaches, players, officials, fans and others who came to know, love and respect him during a coaching career that lasted from the 1960s well into a new century.

“I’m happy to see all my friends and players,” he said before walking through a short hallway, shaking hands with a receiving line of current Bluestreaks players, and onto the court that would soon bear his name. “Without basketball, you don’t see them anymore.”

He misses the game and the game misses him. But he knows that time marches on, and Friday’s ceremony included steps back in time as players from five decades spoke to the large crowd. The gym has long been named for Harvey Roels, who coached the Bluestreaks from 1922 to 1954; McDonald (a 1951 Chisholm graduate) took over in 1961.

Bob’s career, as has been well-documented, lasted for 59 total seasons (he coached at McGregor and Barnum before returning to his hometown) and ended with a record of 1,1012-428, 11 trips to state and state titles in 1973, 1975 and 1991. He taught history, social education and physical education, and coached track for 47 years.

The impact and influence that McDonald had on his players was clear from those who spoke Friday.

“We were an ordinary bunch of athletes, and Bob turned us into an extraordinary team,” said Mike Koshmrl, Class of 1974.

Ted Krize, Class of 1991, said “Coach McDonald is a man of integrity, a man of principle, and a man with great values and faith,” later adding, “He’s a legendary coach, an outstanding teacher and an even better man.”

Jon Maturi (Class of 1965 and brother of former University of Minnesota athletics director Joel Maturi) talked about how he still plays basketball at age 70. He recalled working on his shot at a YMCA 10 years ago and thinking about his coach.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m 60 years old. Who cares about my shot?’ Well, I care and Coach McDonald cares.”

Paul Sentiere (Class of 1982) mentioned the countless hours of practices, workouts and drills McDonald oversaw for Chisholm children of all ages, including his famous Saturday morning clinics. “He’s been here for all those kids all these years.”

A video presentation began with a black and white photo of 4-year-old Bob McDonald. There were photos of his Bluestreaks playing days, team photos from his coaching career and TV interviews when his teams played at state. (Pictured are Bob with his six children.)

Before Bob spoke to the crowd, a large sign on the gym wall was unveiled. It carried these simple words: BOB McDONALD COURT.

The old coach talked about the old days. About spending time with Chisholm doctor Archibald (Moonlight) Graham, who became a character in the movie “Field of Dreams.” About the men who spent years driving the team bus, about players, about friendships, about the joys of coaching in his hometown.

He ended his remarks by saying, “It’s wonderful to see my old friends and my old players.”

He didn’t mention this fact: When Bob was a senior at Chisholm in 1951, the following statement appeared in the school yearbook: “Bob McDonald plans to go to college to become a dentist.”

--To see a photo gallery from Chisholm, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
The Best Of John’s Journal No. 1: Hope For Henry7/28/2017
The countdown is complete and here is my favorite John’s Journal story from the 2016-17 school year. The story, posted on Feb. 8, is about a young boy named Henry who is the grandson of Annandale High School boys basketball coach Skip Dolan. As detailed below, Henry was born with heart defects and he and his family faced many daunting obstacles.

This story is my favorite because it combines so many great aspects of high school activities: Competition, community support, taking care of each other, working toward goals that extend beyond winning.

At the time the story was posted, Henry was nine months old and had never left the hospital. The postscript to the story is all positive, as you can see by going to “Hope for Henry Charles” on Facebook.

There were a total of 364 posts on John’s Journal between the first day of practice for fall sports in 2016 through the end of spring state tournaments in 2017. Here is the No. 1 story …

A Special Night In Annandale: Hope For Henry

ANNANDALE – Two comments overheard during a grand Tuesday evening of basketball in a packed gymnasium do a pretty good job of telling the story.

Quote No. 1: “This is just a game. There’s a little kid fighting for his life.”

Quote No. 2: “Those were two dang good teams going at it.”

Both quotes are accurate. These were just games, with the girls and boys basketball teams from Hopkins heading to Annandale for a varsity doubleheader. The overall focus was on a little boy who is in the minds and hearts and prayers of everyone who attended.

Henry Dolan is the grandson of Annandale boys basketball coach Skip Dolan. Henry was born with heart defects and given a two percent chance to survive for a week after birth. That was nine months ago. Henry, who has undergone a heart transplant, remains hospitalized and hopes are high for his long-term health. But the road will be long for Henry, his parents, Sam and Mollie Dolan, and his two big sisters. (Skip is pictured here with the Hopkins girls team.)

There were signs on the gym walls proclaiming it a “Night of Hope.” Hope For Henry t-shirts, hats and bracelets were sold. The teams wore Hope For Henry shirts during warmups.

The girls game was, well, one-sided. The Hopkins girls are the top-ranked team in Class 4A and ran their record to 22-0 with a 79-35 victory over the Class 2A Cardinals. The boys game was not like that at all. Here were the mighty Hopkins Royals, longtime power in Class 4A and currently ranked No. 6 in that class with a pregame record of 14-5, and the Annandale Cardinals, unranked in Class 2A and holding a record of 15-3.

Between warmups and tipoff of the boys game, Skip Dolan and Cardinals senior guard Connor Magrum each spoke to the crowd.

Magrum and his teammates have made Henry part of the team. He is an honorary Cardinal, with a number 13 jersey dedicated to him (that’s the number Henry’s dad wore). The players all wear Hope For Henry wristbands, which they hang on a makeshift wooden tree during games. The Hopkins players did something special, too, writing personal notes to the Dolans and hanging them on the tree before warmups.

“Tonight we would like to draw attention to a special little boy who has been in our hearts since long before the season began,” Connor said. He stressed the importance of organ donation, saying, “One way we can all be heroes in our community and beyond is by considering becoming an organ donor.”

Coach Dolan thanked the Hopkins teams for coming to Annandale, and thanked all the people behind Tuesday’s events. It was clear that Skip and his family have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.

“We are truly, truly thankful to this community, to this student body, to this school district,” he said. “I couldn’t be prouder of a community and what you’ve done.”

The longest ovation of the night came when Skip introduced Sam and Mollie, who were in the stands while grandma was with Henry for a few hours.

“Imagine being told that there’s a two percent chance at birth that your child will live the first week,” Skip said. He ended his comments with this: “Let’s play basketball!”

And oh did they play basketball. The Royals shot the lights out early and led 29-11 midway through the first half. The Cardinals began finding the range and were only behind by five at halftime, 45-40.

The halftime entertainment included a free throw contest. The hopefuls paid a dollar for the chance to sink a shot and win a two-liter jug of pop. The 50-50 raffle winner also was announced. The pot was north of a thousand dollars and the winner would take home more than $500. But, as expected, the holder of the lucky ticket simply said, “keep it all” and the money went toward Henry’s care. Huge round of applause.

The boys from Annandale did not waver in the second half. The score was 50-50 with 14 minutes to go and the atmosphere was electric. After that? Bedlam.

A three-point play by Trent Pepper and a three-point field goal by Jarod Wilken gave Annandale a 61-57 lead with 8:56 left. The crowd was screaming and that never changed. Joe Hedstrom, Hopkins’ 6-foot-11 junior center, powered to the hoop to give the Royals a two-point edge and Wilken tied it with a layup. There were missed shots and turnovers in the final minutes, and the verdict was finally sealed with Hopkins senior Ishmael El-Amin making two free throws to give the Royals a 72-71 win that they will long remember.

The postgame scene was just as special. There were handshakes and hugs, “thanks for coming” and “wow, what a game!” Skip Dolan posed for photos with Hopkins players and coaches, big smiles on every face. It was truly a night to remember.

Someday, Henry will hear all about it.

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
The Best Of John’s Journal No. 2: Westbrook-Walnut Grove’s Kate Jorgenson7/26/2017
The No. 2 and No. 3 stories on my list of favorites from the 2016-17 school year are similar. No. 3 was Shan Donovan, who was born without a left arm but thrives as a high school student and athlete. Today I unveil No. 2. Kate Jorgenson, who will be a sophomore when school resumes, has taken tragedy and turned it into inspiration.

Here is Kate’s story, which was originally posted on May 9…

Nothing Stops Westbrook-Walnut Grove’s Kate Jorgenson

WALNUT GROVE – Carter Ross, who teaches sixth grade and coaches football and girls and boys golf at Westbrook-Walnut Grove, offered brief instructions before the golfers practiced one day last week.

“We have to dial in at 150 (yards),” he told the 13 boys and seven girls assembled not on a golf course but on a grassy field behind the elementary school. “Focus on the bump and run for conference and sections in Worthington. No matter how much rain they get, the greens will be as hard as a rock.

“You’re going to have bad shots but you have to recover.”

One of the Chargers golfers epitomizes that philosophy: When something bad happens, you recover, you bounce back, you accept the challenge, you thrive.

Kate Jorgenson probably wasn’t thinking along those exact lines as she worked through the hour-long practice, hitting short irons, then mid-range irons, long irons and finishing with her driver. With each swing, she rotated her right arm in a smooth arc.

Her left arm was not a factor because the ninth-grader does not have a full left arm. Nearly three years ago, Kate was driving an ATV loaded with rocks from the family farm when it rolled over on her left arm. Doctors tried to save the arm before it was amputated above the elbow.

Kate may blush if you call her a miracle. All she wants to do is go to school, participate in her favorite sports (basketball, volleyball, golf, swimming), spend time with her family and friends and be a normal kid.

As Kate waited to be released from the hospital, she told herself, “This isn’t the end of the world. I’ll still be able to play sports, I’ll still be a friend to all my friends.” Yes, she was going to be the same Kate.

“Kate’s just the kind of girl that you want to be friends with,” said her classmate and golf teammate Halle Steen. “She’s fun, she’s nice, she’s good to be around.”

Before practice on this day, Halle helped Kate put her long hair in a ponytail. Other than a few similar small tasks, Kate is self-sufficient. Just ask her mom, Nikki.

“From the beginning, she would get upset with me because I would try to lay out things so it would be easiest for her,” said Nikki, a fifth-grade teacher. “And she would get mad at me: ‘Mom, if I need help I’ll ask.’ And she does. I try not to say too much because she’ll say, ‘Don’t you think I can do that?’ ”

Kate was on the track team as a seventh- and eighth-grader. She’s giving golf a whirl this spring because it’s something new and a sport she can take part in for a lifetime. She wore a long-sleeved t-shirt at this practice, the empty left sleeve billowing as she struck balls. She has a prosthetic arm but it isn’t equipped to grip and swing a golf club.

“It’s actually quite amazing,” Ross said. “She’s done really well at it. It’s an attitude thing.”

Kate’s attitude since the accident has been everything. She hasn’t shied away from strangers, even little kids who look at her and ask, “Where’s your arm?”

“People are usually very accepting and very surprised by what I can do,” she said.

This day’s golf practice was typical for a Wednesday. Men’s league play takes over the Chargers’ home course, Rolling Hills in Westbrook, on Wednesdays so the team hits balls behind the grade school. There’s a grove of pine trees on the left side and a gravel road on the right. Five-gallon buckets of balls are taken out of storage in a bus barn, balls are dumped on the grass and the empty buckets are placed downrange as targets. When a school bus rolls up, headed for the barn, golfers yell “bus!” and no missiles are fired until the coast is clear.
Here, just like everywhere else, Kate is no different than anyone else. At times she is serious, at times she laughs with her friends. Just like any other day. A school dance was held over the weekend, and Kate was Kate; dressed up but with nothing covering her shortened left arm.

“She just owns it,” said Nikki, whose husband Jim manages the family farm. Their son Jack is a senior who also is on the golf team, plays football and stays very busy.

People in the community and well beyond came together after Kate’s accident. Multiple fundraisers were held, including sales of orange t-shirts (Kate’s favorite color) that carried the slogan “Kate’s Kourage.”

Kate has become a role model who inspires others with her tenacity and attitude. She also has been inspired by people in similar roles, including former University of Florida basketball player Zach Hodskins, whose left arm is similar to Kate’s. They met at a summer camp for young people with limb differences; the camp was sponsored by the non-profit NubAbility Athletics Foundation.

At one of those gatherings, Kate met another camper who was becoming a lifeguard. Always an avid swimmer, Kate returned to the pool after her accident. This spring, she will begin taking instruction in becoming a certified lifeguard.

“She doesn’t ever really hold back,” said Nikki. “She says, ‘I think I can do this. Is it OK if I try?’

“We’re very proud of her. It’s pretty amazing. She’s got quite a story to tell.”

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
The Best Of John’s Journal No. 3: Onamia’s Shan Donovan7/23/2017
We have arrived at the final three stories on my Top 10 list from 2016-17, and No 3 is very special. The story, posted on May 22, is a profile of one of the most amazing people I know. Shan Donovan was born in China without a left arm, and today he is a three-sport athlete and multi-dimensional high school student in a small Minnesota town. The word “inspirational” doesn’t even begin to describe Shan...

One Arm? That’s No Problem For Onamia’s Amazing Shan Donovan

ONAMIA – Shan Donovan was standing near the right-field foul line, playing catch with a teammate before the Onamia High School varsity baseball team hosted Pine City. After a couple of tosses, Shan (his name is pronounced “Shawn”) shouted, “Get a little closer. My arm’s not warmed up yet.”

As the boys got loose, Shan did what he does every day on the ballfield. He caught the ball in the glove on his right hand, flipped the glove off, grabbed the ball in mid-air with his bare hand and tossed it before leaning down to pick up the glove and re-start the process.

The fact that Shan does not have a left arm is no impediment for the Panthers’ sophomore starting catcher. He also plays football and basketball, sings in the school choir and acts in school plays. He is proficient with several musical instruments, including the tuba, trumpet and piano. And he does it all with one arm.

“If you tell him he can’t do it, he’s going to find a way to do it,” said Jason Runyan, Onamia’s head coach for baseball and boys basketball. “He lives the high school life. He’s involved in everything.”

Shan doesn’t know anything different. Born in China without a left arm, he was five years old when he was adopted by Cathy Donovan, a physican in Onamia.

Shortly after arriving in this small town a few miles south of Mille Lacs Lake in central Minnesota, Shan began getting involved in sports. First came karate and then taekwondo, followed by almost every other activity he could get his hand on.

“He just wants to be involved in everything and that’s how he got into sports,” said Cathy. When asked if Shan is so heavily involved in sports and other activites that he overextends himself, she laughed and said, “No. I get overextended, he doesn’t.”

Playing baseball presents specific challenges to Shan. He uses his teeth to tighten the Velcro strap on his batting glove. But like putting on shin guards and a chest protector, it’s second nature. Crouching behind home plate, he shakes off his mitt, flashes signals to the pitcher, puts the glove back on, catches the pitch and with one shake of his hand the glove flies off, he grabs the ball and throws it back to the mound. When a baserunner attempts to steal, Shan is lightning quick in getting the ball into his throwing hand and firing.

He is a switch-hitter who bats from the right side of the plate when the bases are empty; with runners on he moves to the left side and is likely to put down a bunt, using his speed to dash to first base.

“He has more power from the right side and he’s a lethal bunter from the left side,” Runyan said. “We ask a lot of him, in bunting situations especially. He’s very fast. He just works hard, that’s all there is to it.”

Runyan, who is in his first year at Onamia, admits he thought Shan was kidding when, shortly after Jason arrived in town, Shan told him, “I play catcher.”

“I thought it was a joke, honestly. I did. It wasn’t a joke, obviously. I put him back there at catcher and right away he was good, blocking every ball. What amazed me the most I guess was when the first kid stole, I didn’t know how it was going to go down. I’d seen a little in practice, but it was an instant flip of the glove and he throws.”

To perfect his catching/throwing motion, Shan watched online videos of people who had lost limbs but played baseball or softball anyway, many of them veterans.

“It’s one of those sports that’s pretty complicated because most everybody sees it as a two-arm sport,” he said. “You definitely have to use two arms; catch with one and throw with the other.”

Shan has been fitted with a prosthetic arm. He doesn’t use it, calling it “annoying.” His desire to try new things is a testament to his positive attitude.

“I don’t find really anything challenging, unless there’s absolutely ones where you definitely need two arms to do,” he said. “Most (amusement park) rides, they tell me I can’t ride them because you need to hold on with two hands. But that’s not really a problem. The one I really have an issue with is making friendship bracelets. I’m not a big fan of it and I don’t do it much.”

When his school schedule included a pottery class, he wasn’t thrilled about attempting to create pottery with one hand. In the end, though, he enjoyed the class and discovered he was a talented potter.

Playing mostly junior varsity basketball last winter, Shan didn’t do a lot of scoring but Runyan called him one of the leaders on the JV and the best defensive player. Shan’s basketball practice were sometimes limited because he had to rush off to other activities.

Runyan said, “There were three of four practices where he would come up and say, ‘Hey coach, I’ve got to go practice for the musical’ or ‘I’ve got to go practice with the jazz band.’ I thought, ‘You’re doing it all. You’re livin’ it, man.’ ”

While Shan realizes he is an inspiring figure, he doesn’t outwardly try to portray himself that way. He’s just a high school kid doing what busy high school kids do.

“I go to a camp where a lot of people look up to me,” he said. “I inspire people without realizing that I’m inspiring them. I’m not really trying to do that.”

His mom recalled when Shan helped a group of elementary students work on basketball skills. The kids, most of them righthanded, were less than excited about trying to shoot with their left hand.

“One or two of them were complaining, so Shan gave them a pep talk,” Cathy said.

Shan’s grandparents, George and Shirley Donovan, watched the Onamia-Pine City game in lawn chairs along with their daughter Cathy and the family dog, Flash. (Everybody, including Flash, nibbled on peanuts.)

Shirley talked about seeing a magazine photo of an amputee climbing Mount Everest and asking Shan, “Did you see this?”

To which Shan’s mom quickly interjected, “Don’t give him any ideas.”

*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn